To Block or Not to Block

By: Rachel Rubin (Penn ‘17)

Everybody remembers their first adblocker.

Yeah, maybe not. I was probably trying to stream some episode of Breaking Bad on a site of questionable legality, and found the pop-ups annoying. I didn’t think much of it and was just relieved that Walt, Jesse and I could continue our adventures without fear of a pornographic pop up ruining the mood.

When I downloaded an adblocker, I was not making a statement about my stance on the nature of Internet advertising. I was not heralding a revolutionary new technology. I was not actively looking to impact the future of online media. I was just tired. And I’m not alone in my actions — 86.6 million people in the US will be using an ad blocker by the end of 2017, according to eMarketer.

Source: eMarketer

Clearly, this is a very big problem for the online advertising industry. But who’s to blame? Me, for downloading the blocker, or the advertiser, for the irritating ads?

Personally, I’ve disabled my adblocker. After spending the summer at AppNexus, an adtech company, it’s hard for me to mentally separate the act of browsing ad-less from stealing.

Adblockers are a divisive practice; for instance, half of our Innovation Fund Project Managers use them. Let’s take a look at both sides of the issue.

A Victimless Crime — The Case for AdBlocking

Adblocking is popular — about 26% of desktop internet consumers use adblockers (that’s about 200 million people worldwide). There’s no effective way to put this cat back in the bag.

Source: Forbes

And why should we? Progress is a good thing. Using an adblocker gives better access to the same content without abrasive ads. And they’re not harmless pixels on a screen, users pay for ads with personal data and bandwidth. Most can attest that being followed across the Internet by the same American Apparel ad for two months is a rather eerie feeling.

Sites are adapting to the ever-growing tides of adblockers. Several well-known companies, such as Wired, Forbes, and The New York Times, are turning to “whitelisting” as a means to fight against depleting revenue from ads. So, even if you have an adblocker installed, a pop up will appear asking you to disable it specifically for these sites. When these pop ups appear, more than half of users comply.

StackOverflow boldly claims that it doesn’t care about adblockers. If you’re using one, you probably weren’t going to be clicking on their ads anyway. Still, they make a concerted effort to show only the most compelling advertisements on their site in order to prove their value to consumers.

The Free Internet — The Case Against AdBlocking

Yet, online companies like StackOverflow and The New York Times are still hurting from this trend. But could disabling a 2-inch rectangle on the side of your screen telling you about a sale at Macy’s really do that much?

Well, yes. It could actually destroy the free internet, according John Naughton’s article, “The rise of ad-blocking could herald the end of the free internet,” in The Guardian. While maybe an overly apocalyptic headline, the trends developing are problematic. Advertisements may have to be indistinguishable from regular content to avoid being blocked, making determining genuine content difficult. Pop ups asking consumers to whitelist content are a bandage on the problem, but they still leave a significant chunk of revenue on the table. And most users will block everything by default, so sites still suffer.

And this isn’t some abstract ominous prophecy about the future; the effects are already here. Even Facebook, a behemoth in the space, isn’t safe. Facebook took a strong stance against blocking, completely preventing ads from working on its desktop site. To compensate, users can now play a more active role in customizing their ad preferences.

Facebook lets you customize your ad preferences.

It’s also possible that depleting ad revenue could force more and more websites to take shelter behind paywalls, as do The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. By closing off your browsing experience from ads, you could be closing yourself off to free information. Those slightly annoying ads are a large part of the democratization of information on the internet — are you really willing to start paying a subscription to BuzzFeed?

Publishers are set to lose $35 billion dollars in revenue by 2020. Technology is meant to disrupt industries, not destroy them. To block or not to block is up to you, and it may be a bigger decision than you think.

P.S. We just relaunched the Innovation Fund last week. Please take a read, and if you’re in the Philly area, we’d love to see you at our relaunch event!


Rachel Rubin is an Innovation Fund Project Manager. She’s a senior studying Science, Technology, and Society and Consumer Psychology. She has previously spent time in telecom and adtech at Comcast and AppNexus, respectively. Rachel loves going to comedy shows and exploring Philadelphia.

Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund is dedicated to funding, promoting, cultivating, and supporting student entrepreneurship in the UPenn community. Working on a startup? Interested in partnering? Want to get involved? Drop us a line at apply.innovationfund at gmail.com.